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How to have a healthy Thanksgiving

The original North American Thanksgiving took place in 1621 and was a harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag natives at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. The feast lasted three days and nights, by most accounts included wild turkey, but more likely a roasted goose or duck. The Wampanoag ate eels and shellfish, so they probably shared lobster, clams and mussels, and maybe even dried or smoked fish. Corn, chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts, pumpkin or other native squash were on the menu.

Plimoth Plantation is an organization devoted to “a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers.” They share Pilgrim and diarist Edward Winslow’s account:

Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors… Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed… These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God t hanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.

The Wampanoag were cultivators and taught the English immigrants how to plant turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and squash. And so, at that first celebration, all shared whole foods and lots of plants.

But, what’s become “traditional” for North Americans and many expats?  For more than a hundred years or more there was no white sugar, no pies, tarts, or even cranberry sauce.  There weren’t even sweet potatoes! In fact, potatoes were not available until later on in the 17th Century; white potatoes from South America; sweet potatoes from the Caribbean.  The Wampanoag did eat other tubers, including Jerusalem artichokes, Indian turnip and water lily.

U.S Turkeys — Mirroring U.S. Adults

The standard commercial turkey is “pathologically obese”…the word “pathological” referring to how selective breeding and artificial insemination, antibiotics and non-natural feeding has transformed the formerly healthy bird into a top-heavy, low-quality mess.

As reported by Martha Rosenberg, investigative reporter and award-winning author for the Huffington Post, “The chemicals, food additives and extreme production methods used to deliver the nation’s plump, affordable turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving are enough to make you lose your appetite.”

According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms that the average turkey destined for today’s dinner table “weighs a whopping 57 percent more than his or her peers did in 1965. Today, a bird can weigh 35 pounds in as little as five months.”

Give Thanks for Real Food

All the supermercados like Supermaxi and Coral sell frozen turkeys, Bocatti and mercados sell fresh. It may be possible to buy organic or free-range turkeys here in Cuenca, raised without commercial feed, especially without antibiotics or food additives.  I contacted the restaurant La Yunta through facebook and they say they’ll be delivering free-range birds next Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving in Cuenca: contact them here.  If you have a good source, please post in the comments below.

I’ve noticed the typical North American Thanksgiving menu advertised in local restaurants: roasted turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, maybe more gravy, cranberry sauce, biscuits, and pie.  Sigh.  This menu is a recipe for weight gain.  A ton of calories, salt, fat, starch, and sugar.

There are alternatives. Maybe this year you’ll try a vegan Thanksgiving, can celebrate the true meaning of eating low on the food chain, known to sustain life more healthfully.

Maybe start with a roasted apple and squash soup, then an autumn harvest casserole with roasted garlic gravy, sweet potato biscuits, and finish with gingerbread cookies. has all these delicious recipes here.

A roasted or baked wild-caught fish like trout or sea bass is a tasty main course. Shellfish is another option — grilled or sauté shrimp with a bounty of vegetables, including tomatoes, onions, garlic, and diced squash.  Sweet potatoes are known as camotes in Cuenca, and can be found in Feria Libre, 10 de Agosto and other mercados.  For more information and locations to purchase, visit

Rob Gray’s Gran Roca farm in Yungilla valley grows all kinds of delicious and sustainable produce (raised without chemicals or pesticides), including fruits, vegetables, herbs…and camotes, and offers pasture-raised chickens. This Thanksgiving, Rob is partnering with La Cilindrada restaurant for a Thanksgiving buffet featuring free-range chickens and many other vegetable dishes, including roasted vegetables, green beans, sweet potatoes, and homemade breads and desserts.  Read more here.

Kitty Hursh Graber, who lived in Mexico for many years, has a suggestion for zapallo, an Ecuadorian squash, which can be used in just about any recipe that calls for pumpkin.  She says, “Buy zapallo cleaned and cubed in Supermarket and many mercados also sell it prepared to cook. Just cook, mash, and then store in the refrigerator for a day or two, then drain the liquid and you’ll have a thick puree for your pie. Zapallo is also a great substitute for sweet potatoes in casseroles too.”

Give Thanks For Good Health: And Prevent Weight Gain

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that it’s not just North Americans who perennially “go on diets” in January! It’s a global problem: weight gain and holidays seem to go hand-in-hand.  But, after the holidays, the weight doesn’t “automatically” disappear. And the older we get, the harder it is to take the extra weight off.

Make your holidays healthier.  Just by making some modifications!

You don’t have to do what your Mother or Grandmother did.  You don’t have to “obey” the recipe either!

So what if that casserole calls for a stick of butter? Use half. If you typically use heavy cream, cut calories and maintain the taste and use lower-calorie (and fat) 2% milk. Cut down on the sugar: use less to sweeten beverages and dessert toppings.  Try stevia as a low-calorie alternative.

And it’s not a contest to see who can eat the most.  Eat until satisfied, not stuffed, like that poor turkey.

Although up to half of holiday weight gain is lost shortly after the holidays, half the weight gain appears to remain until the summer months or beyond. Eating a healthy meal, enjoying the company, and savoring the flavors is better than stuffing yourself, don’t you think?

My Top Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving

Be sure to take some time to count your blessings — knowing that you have the freedom to choose your foods.

The Blessings

  1. Food and feelings: Think about your relationship with food, how food affects you, and how what you choose can influence how you feel. Food is neither good nor bad, but it can be fatty or healthy, over-sauced or elegantly flavorful. Choose flavorful, well-prepared foods, and feel great about your choices.
  2. Balancing act: This year, throw off the shackles that are holding you back from feeling good about food. It’s not an “all or nothing” proposition. If you decide to indulge in something overly sweet, rich or high-calorie, balance with salads and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. Balance the scale in your favor.
  3. Be pro-active: Even if you can’t make it to your usual aerobics class or gym session, find a few creative alternatives and keep moving. I’m a fan of fitness trackers, whether it’s a Fitbit or your phone. Research shows that they motivate people to move more. Walking at least 10,000 steps a day will burn about 3,500 calories weekly. Start with a goal of 5,000 steps, and make them fuerte to get the benefits.
  4. Plan to succeed: Many of us face multiple social functions throughout the holidays. Besides Thanksgiving, there are upcoming social events — Christmas, New Years. It’s likely you’ll be invited to dinner at a friends’ and have no control of the menu. What to do? A small snack before you go could help you stay focused on smaller portions. Happily, when you’re dining out at a restaurant, you’re the boss. Take a look at that menu — know the lingo. Stay simple — order grilled, roasted, broiled, and baked — instead of covered in sauce, or cheesy, or deep-fried. Adding fat to your food just makes it… fatty. If it’s not good enough to eat without slathering butter on it, skip it. Make your voice heard — and eat slowly. Resign from the “clean plate club”, slow it down and you’ll be satisfied with less food — make para llevar por favor (take it to go, please) part of your vocabulary.
  5. Drink wisely: Sure you can toast the holidays, but calories add up quickly, especially liquid calories.  Eliminating sweetened drinks is one of the easiest ways to improve your diet, and alcoholic drinks mixed with sugary soda or juices are double trouble. Drink to your health with water, herbal tea or sparkling water.
  6. Say yes to NO!There’s really no reason to feel pressured to eat. When you’re faced with someone who insists you have a little more, stand your ground and roll out the biggest two-letter word in the English language. It’s your choice, so smile and say, “no, thanks”…or “thanks for offering, but not this time”…or “I appreciate your offer, but I’m full, thanks for thinking of me!”

Happy Thanksgiving in Cuenca!  Feel free to share your favorite shopping locations, sources of free-range birds, healthy recipes, or just thoughts about what it means to you to celebrate Thanksgiving in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2017.

Sources: Sick birds, sick production methods: 9 reasons to think twice about your holiday turkey. Where do ‘Thanksgiving Turkeys’ come from? Celebrate a Vegan Holiday.

Plimoth Plantation. Partakers of our plenty: Thanksgiving Food Traditions. How America’s Thanksgiving turkeys got so huge. What was on the menu at the First Thanksgiving?

The New England Journal of Medicine. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries.

8 thoughts on “How to have a healthy Thanksgiving

  1. Or maybe don’t overeat the whole year and have a TRADITIONAL Thanksgiving dinner. I like traditions. We don’t eat meat whole year but I will have traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. And I will eat a lot 🙂 and no Vegan that day.

    1. Hi Judita, I think the point of the column is that the original thanksgiving feast has morphed into something very different and “traditional” doesn’t have to mean sugar, fat, salt and chemically-laden birds. I advocate eating and celebrating with friends, but some poultry is really raised inhumanely and unhealthfully, so I’ll enjoy my thanksgiving, giving thanks that I have the choice to eat that way all through the year. You don’t have to be a vegan to eat healthfully, but if you choose to, that’s a good choice. Susan

    2. I always wanted to know if the Pilgrims – traditionally – put marshmallows in their sweet potatoes.
      Or if they used canned Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and those French’s Crispy Onions on top of their Green Bean Casserole . . . . . or if they even had cans back then.

  2. Susan : The sad turkey situation has occurred in the U.S.over time with the savage practices of industrial food production of animals. I love the cultural history you outline – always something to consider, of course. As a Yankee New Englander by birth I appreciate the connections you make about culture and food
    in N. E. The custom of eating fish and seafood still prospers in Massachusetts, my home state — although overfishing some species has occurred and with climate change, we expect more changes to the oceans, acidity levels etc.
    Living 7 years here in Ecuador, it is quite easy to cook and eat vegetarian or do what I do which is become a flexitarian. Prices and open markets offer seasonal eating here too. To compare. I lived and cooked in Chile and Argentina for several years and I can tell you these so-called ‘advanced capitalist/developed” countries have a dramatic rise in obesity.. Like NIke says: JUST DO IT — no overthinking , anyone can make positive changes. Thanks again for this great article. Happy ThHanksgiving to you and Ken.

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